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Tom Wolfe Has Died (nytimes.com)
304 points by mackmcconnell 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 112 comments

I remember discovering "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" in my high school library. I eventually stole it by taking out the plastic-encased metal security dingy and devoured it more. I read it over and over until the paperback fell apart. It introduced me to a world so foreign and sparkly and rusty dangerous and yet so real. RIP Tom Wolfe for bringing us into your worlds of observation and intrigue.

The way you speak about that book reminds me of my equally teenage love of Kerouac (Might be a virtual right of passage for my age range). I got in well enough with the small Ontario town high school librarian to gain access to the “banned books” they stowed in the back but never disposed of. Wolfe lived back there as well as a number of notable Canadian and American poets. I hope I don’t sound too assuming when I say that I think I know exactly what you mean.

Just to chime in: Although I'm a big reader, I finally got to Kerouac when I was married and in my 30s. It simply did not click by the time I was that old! I agree that you have to hit it at the right time in your life - not necessarily a numerical age, of course.

You denied other's the chance to do the same. You need to make amends.

wallflower has more than made amends by providing some of the best reading on Hacker News for many years.

I’m not really fussed by ‘wallflowers transgression, but I find rationalizing stealing from a public library by posting in an a Gucci tech/business website a bit problematic.

Oh I agree, but was just trying to mitigate the harshness with a little good feeling. We all have enough to point fingers at ourselves about.

Thanks, dang! I appreciate all you do for this community.

Well, I can get behind the intended spirit. Cheers

I never really thought about it that way back then. You are right. I will buy a few copies of this book and leave them in the train stations or on park benches. Thanks.

He inspired others to do as he did -- and he added a nice story to the universe.

That's more than non denying others the chance to read a specific book at the library -- which 99.999% wouldn't have read even if they could anyway.

"Repent, sinner!!!"

No, no, a book wants to be read to exhaustion, and the new "you" who reads it a second time is as deserving as a stranger.

The only copy in my local library had over 30 holds. They said they used to have a second copy until ...

Information wants to be free.

Books in a library seem more free than privately owned books.

Sad day! For, those who want to spend time at work to reminiscence here are some links I found interesting:

* "How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe", a good profile from Vanity Fair, 2015: https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/10/how-tom-wolfe-bec...

* "Tom Wolfe", an early profile one year after the Kool Aid Test had been published, from The Harvard Crimson, 1969: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1969/5/8/tom-wolfe-pbibn-...

* Photos of him in 2013 from Paris Match: https://www.gettyimages.com/event/tom-wolfe-paris-match-issu...

* "Tom Wolfe - The Art of Fiction", from Paris Match, 1991: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2226/tom-wolfe-the...


“The Republican Party as now constituted is obviously too stupid to survive…. What is to be done? Of course, that was Lenin’s line and the only lucid one he ever wrote. The answer is nothing. America’s position is unassailable. We are the imperial Rome of the 3rd Millennium. Our government is a CSX train on a track. People on one side (the left) yell at it, and people on the other side (the right) yell at it, but the train’s only going to go down the track. Thank God for that. That’s why I find American politics too boring to write about. Nixon is forced from office. Does a military junta rise up? Do the tanks roll? Give me a break.” [February 28, 2000.]

^from the Vanity Fair article

Thanks for these links. How did you get a free version of the Paris Review İnterview? A couple of days ago I tried to read some interviews and it won't let me without a subscription.

I see this link is locked too. İt asks for a subscription.

The last link is from the Paris Review, not Paris Match. I get where the error comes from, but I chuckled.

Radical Chic: http://nymag.com/news/features/46170/

At 2 or 3 or 4 a.m., somewhere along in there, on August 25, 1966, his 48th birthday, in fact, Leonard Bernstein woke up in the dark in a state of wild alarm. That had happened before. It was one of the forms his insomnia took. So he did the usual. He got up and walked around a bit. He felt groggy. Suddenly he had a vision, an inspiration. He could see himself, Leonard Bernstein, the egregio maestro, walking out on stage in white tie and tails in front of a full orchestra. On one side of the conductor’s podium is a piano. On the other is a chair with a guitar leaning against it. He sits in the chair and picks up the guitar. A guitar! One of those half-witted instruments, like the accordion, that are made for the Learn-To-Play-in-Eight-Days E-Z-Diagram 110-IQ 14-year-olds of Levittown! But there’s a reason. He has an anti-war message to deliver to this great starched white-throated audience in the symphony hall. He announces to them: “I love.” Just that. The effect is mortifying. All at once a Negro rises up from out of the curve of the grand piano and starts saying things like, “The audience is curiously embarrassed.” Lenny tries to start again, plays some quick numbers on the piano, says, “I love. Amo, ergo sum.” The Negro rises again and says, “The audience thinks he ought to get up and walk out. The audience thinks, ‘I am ashamed even to nudge my neighbor.’ ” Finally, Lenny gets off a heartfelt anti-war speech and exits.

That's amazingly good (and long) and lots of it still seems relevant today.

Tom Wolfe writing on hangovers:

The telephone blasted Peter Fallow awake inside an egg with the shell peeled away and only the membranous sac holding it intact. Ah! The membranous sac was his head, and the right side of his head was on the pillow, and the yolk was as heavy as mercury, and it rolled like mercury, and it was pressing down on his right temple… If he tried to get up to answer the telephone, the yolk, the mercury, the poisoned mass, would shift and roll and rupture the sac, and his brains would fall out.”

Every year, the morning after my birthday, this metaphor plagues my mind.

Very sad to hear. His book "From Bauhaus to Our House" changed my life, finally giving me a plausible explanation as to how we managed to create such a horrific built environment post WW2.

"The Painted Word" is also fantastic, if you liked "From Bauhaus to Our House". Similar approach.

Yes, that is a great book as well.

I think "From Bauhause to Our House" is more important because we can survive a period of terrible art: most people will simply ignore it and when it is over you can throw most of it into the dumpster easily enough.

Unfortunately we are not free to ignore the work of architects, and correcting their mistakes will take us centuries.

I love that book! Was actually compulsory reading during my art history studies.

I'll echo this book as well. A great dive into why every damn sky-rise seems to be nothing but glass panels. Short read too.


this is my favorite wolfe as well. i was taking undergrad classes in architecture and my dad gave me the book. it made me realize that all my classes were avoiding the negative or downright stupid aspects of modernism.

my favorite part was how mies van der rohe liked buildings that looked “authentic” with undecorated steel beams visible, but because it was against the fire safety code in the usa he just glued some i-beams to the side of his chicago skyscrapers. the guy literally decorated buildings to represent a lack of decoration. this is the guy famous for the slogan “less is more.”

Read "The Right Stuff" for the first time recently. I didn't find myself particularly invested in the Mercury astronauts' story, but Wolfe's utterly delightful prose made it hard to pull away. Loved the mantra-like phrases that his writing would circle around: climbing the ziggurat, being left behind, single-combat warriors, the titular right stuff (among many others). Coupled with the fast-talking pace and the incredibly vivid language (waters "about as clear as the eyeballs of a poisoned bass!"), it almost read like poetry at times.

Oh, and the book was hilarious! It's rare that I find myself laughing out loud at literature, but Wolfe's descriptions were just so absurd and clever.

If you can find a torrent, I highly recommend Michael Prichard's Books on Tape recording. The quality is low but the narration is just exceptional.


It is a brilliant book, especially his description of what he thought those poor chimpanzee astronauts were thinking and feeling.

Years ago when I was living in the Bay Area, Tom Wolfe was hanging around doing research for a book on Silicon Valley. The rumour was that he left with the opinion that nothing interesting worth writing about happened there.

His daughter, Alexandra Wolfe, did write a book about SV called "Valley of the Gods":


I haven't read it, but I subscribe to author Ryan Holiday's reading list email newsletter and he had this to say when the book came out:

"A nice new read about the Silicon Valley written by Wall Street Journal reporter (and Tom Wolfe's daughter). It's more pleasant and less cynical than Chaos Monkeys but probably a little more naive too. I was interested in the fate of the various Thiel Fellows since I've met a few of them over the years and was a college dropout myself. Wolfe makes the point that dropping out or getting one of these fellowships has become just as much of a 'track' as the Ivy League these days. Anyway, some great sentences in this book. Not sure how it will stand up over time but was worth a couple hours of my time."

> Anyway, some great sentences in this book. Not sure how it will stand up over time but was worth a couple hours of my time.

I'm not familiar with Ryan Holiday's work, but this almost sounds like a backhanded compliment, especially when you consider how long (and much work) it takes to write a passable book.

It's no longer about Alexandra's book; it's about Ryan's tight schedule.

It doesn't really read like it's meant to be praise or a compliment the same way, "eh, it was okay, but I wasn't blown away by it," isn't necessarily a compliment--a statement which I think is probably an accurate "synonym" to his original statement.

He wrote a pretty interesting profile of Robert Noyce, one of the co-founders of Intel


Thanks for the pointer. I was unaware of 1. how important midwesterners have been to Silicon Valley, and 2. how old the Silicon Valley-Wall Street cultural divide is. Plus, just a fun read.

It was a really great read. My dad was a solid state electrical engineer working on silicon, and went to Grinnell as well for his undergrad. We are from just south of there. Nice to hear about the place

Thank you, I had read that before and lost track of the authorship when I wanted to share with a colleague.

This is the single most elucidating thing written about the cultural matrix of Silicon Valley.

Yes but that's years before. I'm talking dotcom era.

When $300M of investment capital ends up in the $125,000 sale of a sock puppet mascot, was he (broadly speaking) wrong?

While big companies came out of that era, examined at the time and surrounded by since-deceased dotcom peers, I don't fault a reasonable person for concluding as he did.

Mike Judge has it covered.

Journalists and satirists have a very different definition of 'interesting'.

Journalists, satirists, and activists have a very different definition of many things. Those 3 categories are deliberately blurred in recent years. (Mike Judge is more of a "voice of reason" than many others in those categories, actually.)

Judge also had a better frame of reference, mind.

RIP. Feels like the end of an era for New Yorkers. A certain longform vigor. Jimmy Breslin on JFK's assassination. Peter Maas and Serpico. Norman Mailer running for mayor of the "51st State"

In addition to all the excellent suggestions on this page. Also check out The Painted Word (1975).

Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.: Tom Wolfe and The Painted Word


Art of Fiction Interview with George Plimpton


I have to admit, I've never read a Tom Wolfe book. Does anyone have some good recommendations?

I'd immediately recommend Bonfire of the Vanities. It perfectly captures NYC in the 80s: the racial divides, the wealth inequality, and the many ways individuals cross race and class lines. And his vivid description of how bond traders make insane amounts of money (for the time) is unforgettable.

Frankly, Bonfire is worth reading just for unforgettable lines like this one: "If a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who's been arrested."

Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" (Going broke on a million a year), p.137

"One breath of scandal, and not only would the Giscard scheme collapse but his very career would be finished! And what would he do then? I’m already going broke on a million a year! The appalling figures came popping up into his brain. Last year his income had been $980,000. But he had to pay out $21,000 a month for the $1.8 million loan he had to take out to buy the apartment... Of the $560,000 remaining of his income last year, $44,400 was required for the apartment’s monthly maintenance fee… $18,000 for heat, utilities, insurance and repairs, $6,000 for lawn and hedge cutting, $8,000 for taxes. Entertaining at home and in restaurants had come to $37,000. This was a modest sum compared to what other people spent..."

Yeah. I’m honestly not sure how well a newbie read from a space of 30 years who knows Lille of eighties NYC would stand up. But, from my perspective as someone who lived briefly in 80s Manhattan, it’s his novel that really captures a time and place.

I don't remember much of Bonfire, but I definitely remember a specific paragraph in which almost every noun and verb was preceded by the adjective 'f*ing'. Very vivid yet puzzling for a young kid.

I read "Bonfire of the Vanities" many years ago, and thought it was fantastic -- does an incredible job of portraying the different social/ethnic/economic groups in New York during the 1980's, and how these groups view, think about, and interact with each other. Hollywood turned the book into a terrible movie that ruins the story; I would avoid the movie if you have any interest in reading the book.

My recommendation would be to read the book, then read the book "The Devil's Candy", which is about the making of the film, and then see the movie.

The Devil's Candy is about how a writer was given full, uncensored access to the production from inception to release, because everyone thought it was going to be a puff piece of a book about how great everyone was. But in reality, the author got to see how a combination of creative egos and studio mismanagement (plus bad casting, a compromised script, I mean, EVERYTHING) created one of the biggest hollywood flops to that point. It's such a good read.

Second "The Devil's Candy," even if you're not interested in Bonfire of the Vanities at all.

I haven't read the book or seen the movie (yet) but The Devil's Candy was an incredible look into how badly things can go in Hollywood. You can probably generalize it to any large project where multiple competing interests all have a stake.

"The Devil's Candy" changed my attitude from "Why do they make bad movies?" to "It's a miracle that anything screenable get made at all."

It's very funny and engaging, but I first read it young enough that I still expected that kind of story to include some kind of redemption and turn-around— in reality the characters (esp Sherman) basically spend the whole time making a bad situation worse and worse and worse, continuing to double down on their mistakes and ultimately bury themselves.

Not that this is at all bad, but it was a change from what I was otherwise used to reading as a teenager.

It was astonishing that the movie was so bad.

The book was pure capture-the-moment 1980's New York City, and the movie captured none of that and featured Tom Hanks' worst work since Bosom Buddies.

>Hollywood turned the book into a terrible movie that ruins the story; I would avoid the movie if you have any interest in reading the book.

I saw the movie when it first came out but never read the book. I thought the movie was good and couldn't understand why it got so many bad reviews. What made the book so much better?

I can't speak to either the movie or the book, but I've found it interesting that whenever I see a movie before reading the source, I'm pretty happy with the movie, but rarely am I satisfied with the movie when I've read the book first.

The subtle nuances and key moments that I love are rarely translated to the screen. It's perfectly understandable, because they're two very different forms of fiction and the movie rarely has time to be much more than the Cliff's Notes version, but it's still disappointing.

When I've seen the movie first, I can appreciate it for its own sake.

One I remember rather well was the last Harry Potter movie. I had read the book a few years earlier when it was released. I was it a first time in a cinema and was rather disappointed, compared to the experience of reading this part of the book. But then I saw it again one month later and, expecting the movie instead of the book, had a much better time.

I had the experience. When I see the movie first, it is alright, but when I have read the novel first, the movie is usually disappointing.

(So far, I have had one exception: No Country For Old Men - I think the movie captures the book just perfectly.)

My one exception is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Thanks, I will put that on my to-read/to-watch list!

The book was brilliantly written and really captured a time and place. The movie was just meh.

Maybe, absent a book, the movie was just mostly forgettable. There were better films involving 80s financial types like Wall Street. But we’d probably remember Bonfire as a minor film that largely wasted star power through miscasting etc. rather than a bomb.

The Right Stuff. Go. Read it. Now. Shoo.

Another vote for this one. Also Chuck Yeager is the most badass pilot that ever piloted anything that flies. They also made a movie out of the book. It's decent but the book is amazing.

Second the recommendations. However for a counterpoint on Yeager’s role in the NF-104 crash described at the end of the book, see this account from a trainer involved in the program: http://www.kalimera.org/nf104/stories/stories_12.html

And this, about the investigation and a supposed cover-up of alleged pilot error by Yeager: http://www.kalimera.org/nf104/stories/stories_13.html

(Although one never knows whom to believe when reading self-justifying finger pointing like this.)

Thanks, that is a great link. Here's his summary:

"The facts are clear. Chuck Yeager proved incapable of doing the job. He was totally outside his element. He was a natural pilot who had learned by experience and feel, but never really understood stability, just ‘sensed’ how airplanes would act, but aerodynamics and space dynamics are night and day. If he was to fail, I expected it to be outside the aerodynamics region.

But not even that can excuse his accident, which was his fault, alone and was an error of bad pilot technique during normal, aerodynamic flight. His shortcoming was inability to gain and maintain the 70 degree climb angle. That required strict and delicate airplane control. No more and no less."

Co. Smith's case appears to be well-documented.

Probably the most famous (rightly so).

If you like Yeager, I highly recommend reading his memoirs - it makes The Right Stuff seem like an amateur hour aviation book.

> it makes The Right Stuff seem like an amateur hour aviation book

I doubt that.

The Right Stuff is not simply a book about Yeager. And while Yeager is a fascinating and exciting man and truly a hero, Tom Wolfe is one of the greatest non-fiction stylists of the twentieth century. I would be very surprised if Chuck Yeager could write, or commission a ghost writer, with one tenth the chops of Tom Wolfe.

> one of the greatest non-fiction stylists

Sure, if all you're looking for is style.

As a person interested in aviation (and a good story), 'Yeager' is my favorite. The Right Stuff was a good experience, but I probably won't re-read it again.

Yes, for tech readers, The Right Stuff will be disappointing, it covers how people feel and the politics, not much about the technical side of the Mercury or X-1, X-2 or x-15 programs.

What he said!

It is the only one I read. It is GOOD.

I might start with 'The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby' which is a collection of his essays. The first chapter of 'The Right Stuff' is worth reading by itself. The rest of the book is fascinating but drags on a bit in the last third. My favorite is 'The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test'. I haven't gotten around to reading 'Bonfire of the Vanities' however so I can't really comment on that.

'The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby' absolutely blew me away as kid in the UK - tremendous verve in Wolfe's writing, wonderfully descriptive and illuminating and contributed not insignificantly to my life long love of car culture... I agree with Calrbolite103, a very accessible starting point to Wolfe's style in short chapter/article/stories. Most of what he wrote was great IMO, most especially about the late 60's to the 80's...

I agree, this is a great starting point. It contains a selection of articles on such diverse subjects as hot rods, Phil Spector, insomnia-inducing Las Vegas, NASCAR (and moonshining), 60s dance crazes (the mashed potato, etc), The Beatles landing at JFK, Cary Grant, Muhammad Ali, Nannies in NYC, and suits with real buttonholes. All are fantastic reads.

Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Cacthers

I could never read through the passage about the arrival of the daishiki chieftain and his entourage at San Francisco City Hall without getting a side stitch, teary eyes, and a runny nose from laughing out loud.

I disliked "Bonfire of the Vanities" because it was clear to me that Wolfe had fallen into self-plagiarism. It felt to me that the same fate befell Hunter Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut. It didn't take away the pleasure of reading their earlier works, but prompted me to look for different voices.

"Hooking Up"[1], an easy to digest collection of his essays, many of which are mentioned in the article or somewhere in this thread.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hooking_Up

'A Man in Full' and 'I am Charolette Simmons' are two of my favorites. I picked up 'Kingdom of Speech' last year, but couldn't get into it. The other two though will keep you up at night. Great writing.

What did you like about Charlotte Simmons?

I'm genuinely curious myself. What little I've read of it made it seem like a sensationalized account of how young women in college are imagined to behave, as per an out-of-touch old man.

He supposedly did a lot of research on just how the hook-up culture on campuses worked. (Don't mean that cynically or suggestively--just that he always worked hard for his source material.)

I read this while in college, and it was, well, horrible. The characters were terrible and unbelievable. Maybe 50 years on it will be something of a good intro to college life in the 2000s, but I disliked it.

Another vote for A Man in Full.

It depends on what you like, but having read all his full length books, I’m firmly of the opinion that A Man in Full is the best novel qua novel. In terms of craftsmenship it’s his masterpiece. On the other hand, Bonfire of the Vanities is the most Wolfian of the books—it’s the book that most of any of them could not have been written by anyone else (with honorable mention to Back to Blood).

Bonfire of the Vanities, The Right Stuff, Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Good spread of his styles.

I've only read Bonfire of the Vanities but it's a great taste of the conflicts and tensions brewing in 1980s New York. Unfortunately seems relevant today to explain the President's world view.

My under the radar favorite Tom Wolfe book is I am Charlotte Simmons. Maybe it just resonated with me since I read it going in college but I'd definitely recommend it!

Bonfire of the Vanities. It's a wonderful book. But I'll second pretty much any of the other recommendations here as well. He's wonderful author.

"The Right Stuff" is a great one.

He was also a prolific letter writer. A very smart friend of mine was his personal trainer when he stayed in the Hamptons, and the two struck up a friendship. Wolfe corresponded with him, sending long handwritten letters. Maybe it was part of his research process, but I think he just liked people and was genuinely curious about others.

I’m with Hunter S. Thompson on Wolfe:


“thieving pile or albino warts”

You know that was written in jest, right? Thompson and Wolfe were great friends.

I write a blog in Turkish. I write about current affairs and also other subjects that interests me. Once in a while I fall into Ecclesiastes type of borderline nihilism and I say to myself "Why write at all; all is vain; all is for naught." Then I stop writing for a while. I reason that writing is academic; it is useless. It changes nothing. It is so much better to do something useful like programming or building something and selling it. But now after reading the comments here I see that Tom Wolfe's writing changed so many people's life! In a positive way. Of course, it's a different thing that one needs to write well at that level. But it seems that writing is not that useless after all.

The evergreen quote I live by:

"No one becomes Tom Wolfe overnight, not even Tom Wolfe" — William Zinsser.

I would fly back-and-forth between Toronto and Amsterdam on a two week schedule and I'd buy piles of books in airport kiosks, to read them on the plane because I can't sleep on a plane. Most of those books did not hang around to be read for a second time but all of Tom Wolfe's books are still here and have been read to bits. The man has a way with words that allow you to really get into the heads of the characters, they come to life in a way that very few other writers have been able to do for me.

For anyone remotely interested in the sense and nonsense of modern art amd and architecture I strongly recommend Wolfe's "The Painted Word" and "From our House to Bauhaus". Both extremely funny and sharp.

The Right Stuff --- one of my favorite books of all time.

Can we get the metric system now?

So this is one of the people thats responsible for urging journalists to be less objective? Could explain why journalistic integrity is such a mess right now. I didn't even know there was such a movement.

Creative Nonfiction[1] typified by Wolfe, Gay Talese[2] and their ilk is not at all similar to what I think you're referencing in our current climate of agenda-porn masquerading as news

From TFA:

> In an author’s statement for the reference work World Authors, Mr. Wolfe wrote that to him the term “meant writing nonfiction, from newspaper stories to books, using basic reporting to gather the material but techniques ordinarily associated with fiction, such as scene-by-scene construction, to narrate it.”

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_nonfiction

[2] https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a638/frank-sinatra-has...

Where did you get this impression of Wolfe?

I could see that as a bad description of New Journalism (a term coined by Wolfe), which is usually pretty subjective.

The problem here is that New Journalism was never really meant to replace more traditional journalism, is generally considered to have died out well before the current era of curated "journalism" designed to confirm one's beliefs, and, well was nothing like contemporary "fake news" anyway.

While I may not agree with the parent's comment, it appears he is referring to the term "New Journalism" which encourages a subjective point of view. This term was apparently "codified with its current meaning by Tom Wolfe" [0].

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Journalism

While I really liked The Right Stuff, this is the basic problem I have with elevating it above, say, Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s presented in the vein of a historical account but you’re also presumably not expected to put too much faith in specific details and characterizations. Everything is subjective at some level of course but I’m not really a fan of it’s factual except when things need to be colored to make a better story.

TIL Tom Wolfe was still alive.

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